Robert Saxton’s track record with this genre was established to a certain extent with the 1991 chamber opera Caritas, and his catalogue includes numerous vocal works both religious and secular. The Wandering Jew is an opera recorded for BBC Radio 3, and, as a work specifically created for this medium rather than the stage, is ideally suited for CD release.
The title comes from a book by Stefan Heym, an East German author who, as Robert Saxton outlines in his booklet notes, “used the legend of the Wandering Jew and, in his version, his travelling companion Lucifer - likewise expelled from Heaven - to expose the corruption, emptiness and hypocrisy of the German Democratic Republic by means of a multi-levelled narrative.” Saxton doesn’t use this narrative directly, but its resonances inform Saxton’s adaptation of the classic tale of the Jewish cobbler who turns Jesus away, refusing to aid his suffering under the weight of his own cross on the way to Golgotha.
This is a superb production, and quite easy to follow even without the libretto to hand, though this is printed in full in the NMC’s excellent and extensive booklet. This includes a well written synopsis, and some description of the electronic sound treatment by Anthony Pitts. The cast is very strong, and Roderick Williams in the title role deserves particular mention, keeping everything together and maintaining dramatic interest as the vital central character, his spoken narration perfectly in keeping with the BBC ethos of quality for which this opera stands as a prime example. There are a few moments where the text could be just about anything however. I’m aware of the diction problems for sopranos at extreme registers, and it’s a mystery to me why Saxton makes Teresa Cahill as the Widowed Mother sing so high for her conversation with our Wandering Jew as the Children sleep in CD 1 track 8, which inevitably results in some purple patches of remarkably vague textual delivery.
Largely conventional in terms of the voices and orchestra setting, there are some sections where electronics enhance the sense of mystery or define the character of deities. The voice of Odin for instance, “This mortal god”, is given an ocean of resonance, his cries given some filtering and upper harmonic boost to heighten the superhuman drama. These effects are used relatively sparingly however, and Robert Saxton’s idiom is richly colourful in terms of his harmonic pallet and orchestration. The spirit of Tippett is never too far away in this piece, and while I would hesitate to point to derivative elements in Saxton’s score, those who appreciate Tippett’s musical language and transparency and directness of expression will find much to relish here. There’s perhaps a whiff of Stravinsky as well later on, and it’s hard not to hear some kind of link with The Rake’s Progress during the scene at the Mystery Play.
Any minor dramatic or technical weaknesses in The Wandering Jew are by far outstripped by its many strengths, and Saxton’s master stroke is in bringing his central character through two thousand years of time and history, confronting him with the German death camps of World War II. The chorus of spirits stands not only for the victims of that holocaust, but represents all such victims both past, present and future. In the end, the Wandering Jew’s function is movingly acknowledged and accepted as the electronically ethereal Angels sing, “Go, wander, journey, witness / Today and tomorrow.”
This is a powerful and extremely rewarding contemporary work which deserves the widest possible audience.